Sunday, December 27, 2009

Films of the Decade: GERRY (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

In lieu of a traditional Best of the Decade list, I've decided instead to do a series on notable films from the last ten years. These might be the Best of the Best, these might be noble efforts. They might, in your eyes, be total failures. They're certainly my favorites, and they are, I hope, films very much worth discussing, and that qualification is much more valuable than simply being really damn good.

In February, 2003, when this film came through my town, I had no idea there could be movies like this. I was 16 - I hadn't seen any Bela Tarr, or any of the other inspirations people point to when discussing director Gus Van Sant's post-Forrester, pre-Milk period. What followed was nothing short of hypnotic. When I'd recommend this movie to people (some would take me up on it, too), I'd tell them they absolutely have to have a space all to themselves, turn off their phones, bury their watch, remove anything that could at all distract you from the film. You must invest, and the result is at once a cocoon and an open plain of the sound of rocks underneath your feet, sun in your eyes, sand....everywhere, and some of the most beautiful desert photography since Lawrence of Arabia. I was left mesmerized and speechless.

Grounding Van Sant's venture into the unknown are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Damon is building a career filled to the brim with fascinating choices in which ego never enters the equation. Even his performances as Jason Bourne, his franchise-spawning, cool-as-ice action hero, come tinged with regret, confusion, and the simultaneous exhilaration and incarceration that comes with the constant awareness of one's surroundings. IFC's choice of him as Actor of the Decade did not surprise me one bit. Affleck, meanwhile, spent the decade quietly informing people that he is (much) more than the younger brother nipping at the heels of his hilariously famous brother, culminating with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he gave one of the finest performances of the last ten years.

Van Sant would go onto make two more films in the same vein (and one in another altogether) before returning to mainstream studio work, and rarely has the concept of the frame been more important than his work during this period. Whereas his full-frame compositions perfectly convey the claustrophobic nature of high school and the depressed creative mind in Elephant and Last Days, respectively, his widescreen compositions in Gerry are wonderful compositions of the vastness of the desert and the impossibility of escape. These shots may take five minutes, maybe more, but what we're left with eventually, shot to shot, and in a total portrait, is not simply the portrait of two men lost in the desert, or even modern man's inability to come to grips with the natural environment, but in a larger sense the very nature of hopelessness.

Though tempting to insist that there's very little to leaving lots of negative space in a frame, or simply following two people walking (or, in one of the film's most mesmerizing shots, driving), the value of this sort of work seems, to me anyway, self-evident. It's impossible to create work like this without being attuned to the rhythm at which the world turns pressed against the way we process it, never mind the technical bravado and sheer patience needed for its execution. It's cliche to say, "Michael Bay could never do this," but it's also true, of him and most other filmmakers. It's telling that even when truly talented directors make attempts like this, even in parts, in which the man's movement through space, and the space itself, takes precedence over issues of plot or even character (Soderbergh with Che, Jarmusch with The Limits of Control, Campion with Bright Star, Penn with Into the Wild), the result is slightly rushed. Shots are terminated before gliding to their natural conclusion, plot points or emotional landmarks covered up even as they happened.

Nothing is spared in Gerry. Not the filmmaking, not the story, not the characters, not the actors, and certainly not the audience. What's often left out of discussions is how damn tense a film it becomes; this is a much more harrowing journey through the desert than T.E. Lawrence's was, largely because we feel every step of it. Everyone works, or the film crumbles, and in an age when the audience is expected to do less and less in the cinema, it's no wonder this film has gone down with it. It's an absolute marvel of modern art cinema, a testament to its continued revival in the face of claims of its demise.


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